In putting together a critical evaluation of a possible “Canadian school” of Catholic liturgical composition, Robin Williams, came across five boxes of Msgr. Edward Ronan’s liturgical compositions at St. Michael’s Choir School, which was founded by Ronan. Williams, along with a choir school student, catalogued and digitized his findings and they will be released this month as free downloads on the school’s web site. Photo by Michael Swan

Musical treasures discovered almost by accident

By 
  • February 8, 2015

TORONTO - Very soon church choirs around the world will have 900 manuscripts of music, most of it lost, forgotten and long out of print, available for free download from the St. Michael’s Choir School web site. The music, almost all of it liturgical and most of it set to Latin texts, was written by Msgr. John Edward Ronan, founder of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Choir School.

Before choirs can start downloading, rediscovering and rehearsing this vast trove of 20th-century Catholic music, Robin Williams has to defend his PhD thesis in Rome at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, the same institution where Ronan studied from 1932 to 1935 before establishing the choir school in 1937.

The sheer size of the catalogue will be a revelation to the Canadian and international music community, said University of Toronto professor of musicology Robin Elliott, editor of the three-volume Canadian Musical Heritage series.

“It’s sure to bring widespread recognition to Fr. Ronan’s work at St. Mike’s, which is unparalleled,” said Elliott. “It’s going to increase St. Mike’s visibility in the world at large and it’s also going to put Fr. Ronan on the map as a significant creator of this substantial corpus of Catholic liturgical music.”

For nearly 80 years, the choir school has been the monument to Ronan’s life. But his  music has not fared as well. Ronan died four days into the Second Vatican Council in 1962. By the end of the council the Church in North America was determined to embrace the vernacular — Masses in English and popular folk-styled music to encourage congregations to sing along. Only one of Ronan’s hymns — “Out of the Depths” — made it into the Catholic Book of Worship II. “Out of the Depths” was deep sixed in Catholic Book of Worship III.

Fr. Brian Clough remembers singing plenty of Ronan’s music in his 10 years as a choir school boy in the 1950s. But he knows he never sang it all.

“Those of us who know what’s there are privileged and we’re becoming a dying breed,” Clough told The Catholic Register.

Williams’ wound up cataloguing Ronan almost by accident. He originally went to Rome with a $10,000 scholarship from the Sisters of Mercy in Newfoundland to study Gregorian chant. Almost as soon as his thesis proposal was accepted, the Gregorian chant professor was replaced. The elderly replacement professor brought out of retirement to fill the post could not take on any new theses.

“I was in Rome. I had quit my job teaching. I was no longer in the program, because they brought in the old professor of Gregorian chant, who refused to take a new thesis. It was a disaster,” recalled Williams.

Upon discovering that the Pontifical Institute’s musicology professor was an English speaker, Williams became a born-again musicologist. He recalled a project he had taken on while studying for his Master’s at Catholic University of America. He wanted to put together a critical evaluation of a possible “Canadian school” of Catholic liturgical composition.

He had little to go on, and a visit to St. Michael’s Choir School put up another road block. There he discovered that Ronan’s music was sitting uncatalogued in five boxes. Much of it was written on war-time paper and was deteriorating rapidly. Some had been photocopied over and over but most were single copies. The music was in neither chronological nor any other kind of order.

It was a musicologist’s dream — a vast body of work waiting to be catalogued and explained.

“I had no idea there was 900 manuscripts all in boxes. I suspected it would be a big collection, but I had no idea it was that extensive,” Williams said.

In 2011 and 2012 Williams catalogued the music and in 2013 with the help of a St. Michael’s student he digitized the collection.

Ronan and his music were victims of a liturgical reform gone off the rails, according to Williams.

“The council gave permission for the vernacular, but it encouraged Latin,” said Williams. “Even saying it was still the official language of the Church.”

But it wasn’t just the flight away from Latin that made Ronan’s music less appealing for church choirs. Msgr. Barrett Armstrong worked hard to adapt some of Ronan’s compositions to the English Mass. But as folk musicians with guitars and pianos began to lead congregations in song, there was no place even for these adaptations.

“There was this misinterpretation of full, conscious and active participation to mean that the congregants had to be physically doing something, like singing,” said Williams. “For example, listening to choral music wasn’t considered participation.”

“Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy,” declared the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Ronan may have been a conservative composer, but he was not composing imitation museum pieces. He was a man of his time. He studied under Nadia Boulanger, the Parisian conductor and composer whose students included Aaron Copeland, Quincy Jones, Virgil Thomson, Astor Piazzolla and Philip Glass.

In many ways, Ronan was part of a liturgical movement that for half a century or more anticipated the Second Vatican Council. His inspiration was Pope Pius X’s 1903 motu proprio Tra le Sollecitudini, which sought a revival of Catholic tradition in chant and music.

After two generations of guitars and folk music, Williams believes parishes are ready for Ronan’s music.

“Many people have a discontent with the music in their churches,” he said. “Using popular music in churches hasn’t brought about the renewal that people thought it would. There’s the wrong idea that by using popular music in Church, young people in particular will flock in. But that hasn’t happened despite a few decades now of popular music in churches. Young people, if they want to hear popular music they will go to concerts or discotheques. But in church they see that as a gimmick. No faith that’s strong can be brought about by any gimmick.”

Neither is all of Ronan’s music beyond the abilities of a reasonably hard-working parish choir, said Williams. While there are eight-voice pieces that make full use of the highly trained singers Ronan had at his disposal, he also wrote single-voice arrangements for children and standard four-part harmony hymns that were collected and published in the Jubilee Hymns — a book of Ronan’s hymns combined with others that went through several printings.

“If you hear the music you can’t help but… I mean it’s obvious how good it is, even to somebody who doesn’t know the first thing,” said Williams. He’s able to create that ecclesiastic, Latin atmosphere — that prayerful, devotional atmosphere — but at the same time create something that is immediately likeable.”

Look for the links to Ronan’s music at smcs.on.ca some time after Feb. 10.

Comments (3)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Catholic Book of Worship 3 is an abomination. I can only hope that Williams is right and people want a return of music such as Ronan's. My church has 4 weekend masses, if we could bring back some good music (and the organ) for just one of them I...

Catholic Book of Worship 3 is an abomination. I can only hope that Williams is right and people want a return of music such as Ronan's. My church has 4 weekend masses, if we could bring back some good music (and the organ) for just one of them I would be most pleased.

Read More
Bob K
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

I would like to be put in touch with someone so that I can bring Ronan's music to DivineOffice.org (http://DivineOffice.org). Our community in prayer numbers over one hundred thousand and many of them desire more traditional liturgical music in...

I would like to be put in touch with someone so that I can bring Ronan's music to DivineOffice.org (http://DivineOffice.org). Our community in prayer numbers over one hundred thousand and many of them desire more traditional liturgical music in Latin and English.

Read More
Dane Falkner
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

I graduated from the Choir School in 1948. I have the three Jubilee Hymns and the Jubilee Carols, if you want them, along with an early school Christmas card. I also have several photographs from those days which you may wish to copy for your...

I graduated from the Choir School in 1948. I have the three Jubilee Hymns and the Jubilee Carols, if you want them, along with an early school Christmas card. I also have several photographs from those days which you may wish to copy for your archives which I would like to visit.

Read More
Raymond Peringer
There are no comments posted here yet

Leave your comments

  1. Posting comment as a guest. Sign up or login to your account.
Attachments (0 / 3)
Share Your Location
Type the text presented in the image below

Support The Catholic Register

Unlike many other news websites, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our site. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.